Sunday, January 4, 2009

Capricorn Bicycles' Bradley Wilson

The dead of winter seems an appropriate time to write articles on that bicycle Mecca of the North - Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cycloculture has already published interviews with representatives of two greater Minneapolis operations, Kogswell and Surly, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Bicycle companies, from giants such as Quality Bicycle Products to smaller operations such as Handsome Cycles, are thriving in greater Minneapolis, as is the regional cycloculture. What does this area have that warmer, sunnier climes are missing? With luck, the answer to this question will appear as Cycloculture chats with various figures who are part of the bicycle picture in that part of the world.

My first interview in this series is with framebuilder Bradley Wilson, sole proprietor of Capricorn Bicycles. Wilson runs a smallish operation, but when I saw his work on his Flickr page, I was instantly impressed. His frames, forks and racks appear to be well made while maintaining a sense of fun. Two very large frames he built caught my eye. His description of an off-road touring rig he fabricated caught my imagination. His very short waiting list is an added bonus.

Bradley Wilson

Q: Your prices are quite reasonable, with frames staring at $1000. How do you keep prices down?

A: My goal in starting Capricorn was to bridge the gap, so to speak, between cookie-cutter import frames and the high-end show-stoppers coming out of Portland (or thereabouts). My shop and my tools are pretty modest by industry standards and as a result I do most of the work by hand and eye, but that's how I like to work: it's the difference between manufacturing and craft. It takes a little longer, but not much; and some measurements might be off a millimeter here and there, but it's nothing I can't rectify with a couple whifs of a handfile. Paint and powdercoating are outsourced and that helps too. I couldn't even begin to imagine the costs associated with setting up my own paint shop.

Q: How is business? Are the economic woes felt by so many people effecting your business? Or do people see your bicycles, especially your utility bikes, as cheaper alternatives to SUVs?

A: Business is slow right now. I don't know if it's the threat of worldwide economic meltdown or just because it's winter, but people just don't seem to be thinking about throwing around $1000-1500 like they used to. Bicycles are definitely a cost-effective mode of transportation, but I think a lot of people looking into frames are finding much more cost-effective options like Surly, Salsa, Rawland, and Handsome. They're also Minnesota companies but the frames are made overseas, and folks won't feel bad about beating the crap out of them in winter.

Mustachioed fixie

Q: How long have you been building bikes? What have you learned about the craft over time?

A: I started building frames at Waterford Precision Cycles in the late 90's and worked there for a couple years before moving up to Minneapolis to go to school. In 2006 I had a lot of free time so I started making frames again on rough plywood and angle iron fixtures, basically relearning the whole process a step at a time. Now my shop's a little more sophisticated, and the process has evolved too and keeps evolving with each new project. Working at Waterford taught me a lot about the tools and the process, but it's a factory more or less, and it wasn't a "fun" place to work. Working on my own has been a real challenge. To know that Capricorn lives or dies by my talents or lack thereof is daunting. The craft of framebuilding is so much more than just making frames. There's cash flow to manage, inventory to stock, tools to maintain, decals to design, blogs to write... and it's more a matter of staying on top of it all.

The Capricorn "Errand Rack," designed to hold one standard paper grocery bag (or anything else you can fit)

Q: What are your favorite frames to build? What was your favorite build of all time?

A: Most of the frames that I build are single speeds or fixed gears. I like the simplicity of these and customers can build them up for significantly less than they could build up a bike with gears and shifters and what not. I love bicycles when they are simple and practical and used everyday. There's not a whole lot of sense in having a bicycle that's so expensive that you can't lock it up when you go somewhere, in my opinion. Having said that my favorite build was probably the most expensive one that I did: an off-road touring frame, with 29" wheels and custom front and rear racks for a guy that wants to do the Continental Divide Trail. Spectrum Powder Works did the paint and it's truly impressive. The build process ended up sprawling over two or three months, then it was in Colorado Springs for another two months getting paint. But it's totally unique compared to my other creations, everything about it is spot on, and the customer loves it.

Pacenti fork crown gives LOTS of clearance and note the Schmidt hub wire guides

Q: Do you travel more by bicycle or by automobile?

A: I commute by bicycle from year-round. My operating range is -15 to 110. I used to deliver coffee beans by bicycle and trailer 51 weeks a year when I worked at Peace Coffee. As far as "travel" I rode from Minneapolis to Seattle a couple years ago on an old Breezer mountain bike. I'd love to travel more by bicycle and just built myself a frame with touring in mind. But it's nice to just drive somewhere too, get there, and go out for enjoyable rides everyday. Moab's one of my favorite places to travel to. I try to get there at least once every couple years.

Q: There is so much bike stuff going on in Minneapolis. We hear all about Portland's bicycle culture, but Minneapolis seems to have an incredible number of bike companies as well. What's it like to be part of all that? Do people ride their bikes in the middle of Minnesota winters?

A: Minneapolis is a pretty decent place for a cyclist, and for a prairie/taiga town it does have a vibrant bike culture. Folks here know how to have a good time, but there's usually moderate to heavy drinking involved and I'm not sure it always works in their favor. But who am I to say? Winters here can be brutal, but there's nothing we can do about that so we ride year round. The "Stupor Bowl," the annual alleycat race is held every February. Last year something like 300 people turned out to compete, four of them riding Capricorns. It's cool to be part of something much bigger than yourself, and I forget how many people around here that I've never met know who I am or know what I do just by reputation and word-of-mouth. It's humbling. Minneapolis is unique and anomalous and shouldn't be compared to Portland, even though it always is. It seems like God's own light is shining on Portland lately and that's good. If I lived under the daily threat of volcanic cataclysm I'd probably make more of life too. But as it is, we Midwesterners are just too sensible to try to keep up.

Fork fun

Q: Do you want to grow your business? Or would that interfere with your ability to build bikes that make you happy? If you do want to grow it, what do you envision it looking like a few years down the road?

A: The bicycle industry is not one that smart people get into to make money. I've purposely kept my endeavor modest and honest because I don't want to work under the pressures of supporting employees and the schedules and expenses of a factory setting. For now I'd be satisfied with having a steady demand and always something on the cue for a few months at a time. I'd like to get to a point where expanding the operations can be an option, maybe by focusing more on a specific style of bicycle, or finding a like-minded individual to co-own Capricorn and tackle some of the business aspects that I'd consider my weaknesses. It's really hard to commit to expansion as a policy because, from my experience and observations, it invariably leads to a decrease in hands-on craftsmanship, which is the part that I really enjoy.

Q: I'm 6'6 and my weight is down to a svelte 240 lb. Do you have any special design philosophies for building bikes for large folks such as myself?

A: I've built a couple big frames: a 68cm fixed-gear commuter and a 66cm touring rig. When thinking about the design of these frames I went into it thinking about proportions. What can make this bike look "normal" instead of just big? On the fixie I used over-over-sized tubes wherever possible and gave it clearance for bigger (700x32) tires. This made for not only a stronger, stiffer bicycle, but it diminishes the "gangliness." On the touring bike I didn't have the over-over-sized option since he wanted lugs. Instead I went with the heaviest tubes available, including thick chainstays. Again it has plenty of tire clearance and a Pacenti MTB crown which is bigger than the average, plus four water bottle cages. Now that it's all built up with racks and 48cm-wide handlebars I'd say proportionally it looks like it's supposed to.

A fixie after my own heart

Q: How should we go about getting people out of their cars and onto bicycles?

A: Unfortunately I don't think people are going to abandon their cars unless it hits them economically. Commutes are too long, there's just too much stuff to buy and carry home, kids hate to exercise: the excuses go on and on. The streets are too dangerous, and I think that's the biggest problem that city planners and bicycle advocates need to address. Until driving becomes less convenient and more impeded; until cities stop sprawling and focus more on developing core communities, with distinct cultures, parks, shopping and entertainment venues; until we abandon wanton polluting as a national policy... but these are huge issues. I know a lot of people who rediscovered their bicycles this past summer, when gas prices were four dollars a gallon and I hope that trend continues. Last winter I made a frame for my girlfriend and she kept the car parked most of the summer, even riding into work at 5:30 in the morning. This winter I'm making a frame for my dad and my sister, not because I want them to ride, but because they want to. I think people are finally coming to terms with car culture here in America, symbolized perhaps by the financial problems currently experienced in Detroit.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Hmm... be good to each other. Expect better for and from yourself and others. Be surprising. Keep learning. Don't forget to call home once in awhile. The North American Buffalo population is on the rise and we need wild places though not necessarily to visit them. Freedom means never being in a hurry. Get more fiber, drink lots of water, and don't eat when you're not hungry.

Wilson's own "Sorta Tourer"

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Usually an appetite suppressing dose of coffee, maybe a peanut butter and jelly sammy. I usually skip breakfast and get a big lunch instead.


Anonymous said...

Bradley's pragmatic approach to frame building and marketing is a welcome change. Many of us want custom frames but find the cost and wait times prohibitive. Thanks for getting the word out on the alternatives available. Oh yeah great interview too/

Anonymous said...

"Winters here can be brutal, but there's nothing we can do about that so we ride year round."


izon247 said...

afternoon all

looking for some qualified points of view on a new product i am developing for the cycling market.

its a pedal (standard) that powers a set of LED lights as well as a GPS/GSM tracking device when the bike is in motion.

the concept is to provide safety as well as security in case your bike gets stolen.

The device has no battery and is only activated when moved so there is very little impact on the envronment etc.

my concerns are what do the cycling community think of such a device?

to the outside world the pedal will not look or operate any differently to a standard flat communter pedal.

thoughts please? hope you dont mind me seking your followers thoughts?